OOM #2 – Mr. Sardonicus (1961)


by Jaime Grijalba.

Second day! We are doing fine, ladies and gentlemen, the madness of this October Overlook Madness is slowly setting in my mind and of those who read these pages. Today we have the movie that the Cinemassacre’s Monster Madness actually talked about, and so, this time we will talk about William Castle’s ‘Mr. Sardonicus’. You can watch James Rolfe’s video here, and you can read my review down below.

I love William Castle. I love his films, he has this weird sensibility that is part Roger Corman part Alfred Hitchcock, and I couldn’t really tell how many times I’ve felt that I can put any Castle film on, from his masterpiece ‘The Tingler’ (1959) to the noir that is ‘When Strangers Marry’ (1944) and you’ll end up having a wonderful time watching hammy performances and, more than anything else, imagining how it was being there, sitting and enjoying these films with their gimmicks inside the theater. Those elements, while exterior to the realm of serious filmmaking and appreciation, I think are the elements that make me admire the entrepreneur that he was above anything else, because that made his artistic choices go towards the pure entertainment of the audience. And this particular film isn’t different, after 83 minutes of film, William Castle himself appears (again, after doing a small introduction at the start, defining the concept of ‘ghoul’ in its historical sense) and asks the audience to lift some cards that they were given as they entered the theater, if they wanted to give the main ‘bad guy’, Mr. Sardonicus, a fair chance or if they wanted to punish him further, and thus decide the ending. The fact that there’s only a ‘punishment ending’, and that William forces that choice in his sweet talk during the segment, makes it a gimmick that, to me, doesn’t really work that well and that kinda cheats in how it lures the audience into thinking they’ll control the ending. That’s why I think this movie doesn’t work that well, because I would’ve voted mercy.

The movie opens with a Doctor and Knight going on his discoveries of muscle treatment in the early 1800’s in London, only to receive a letter from a previous girlfriend that invites him to her new mansion, where she married a Count in a country in the region of Northern Europe. He goes after reading the note and finding urgency in it. There, he meets Count Sardonicus, a man who wears a mask to hide the rictus in his face that came from the unearthing of his father’s tomb. It is there that we get to know the evils that he has done, but the source of them, making them understandable from the point of view of someone who has been subjected to too much during most of his life, too much trauma, too much death, and too much insensitive behavior around him. After all he went through, he doesn’t deserve the predetermined abject punishment that Castle has for him, a morbid ending for a morbid man, for sure, but still way too much compared to all the things that he actually did and the reasons as to why he did them. So, personally, if I’d been to a theater in 1961, I would’ve put my thumbs way up.

Well, I’ve been an advocate against violence for the past few years. I’ve only said that the only reason to project violence and revenge is in terms of receiving that damage yourself, if you’re hurt by a violent act, you can retaliate immediately, because it’s the only way to defend yourself from violence, most of the time, but even I’d go against that, but I had to bow down somewhere in my extreme position (I’d even advocate for the termination of armies around the world and the banning of fire arms as well, but hey, it’s my utopia and not yours). So, what William Castle does, is that he puts the audience to the test and turn them into a mob, to be the jury and the executor, and it’s that kind of social behavior that I abhor the most today and tomorrow and in the future. We are better than turning into a mob that will hit delinquents in the street just because they are delinquents, we are not Fuente Ovejuna. But, beyond all this social understanding that made me not like the ending, I still think that it’s a fun film, a William Castle film, and thus, worth seeing and having fun with the performances and the amazing make up work that is done here, specially with how he plays with the lighting to make it more interesting and shadowy, to entice the viewer’s imagination. A fun time, that I wish had the technology to actually count the cards to decide a better ending.



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